How Sylvia Plath’s Rare Honors Thesis Helped Me Understand My Divided Self
On the Poet's Understanding of Dostoevsky—and Herself
Sylvia Plath is so ingrained in popular literary culture that her mythical status can often cast a wide shadow over the details of her actual writing.
The revered American writer, sometimes known more for her suicide in 1963 than her searing confessional poetry and “pot-boiler” novel, The Bell Jar, has a vast catalogue of published writing, ranging from children’s books to diaries to letters to her mother. Few recent writers have enjoyed this kind of publication history, as only two works were published during Plath’s lifetime: a collection of poetry and a novel released under a pseudonym.
Since her death, Plath has become a symbolic touchstone for many young writers—this writer included—many who continue to identify with the themes that frame Plath’s image, including that of the tortured artist. Whether it was endless ambition for success in the literary world, or her struggles to reconcile the expectations placed on her as a woman wanting to be a poet, Plath offers a multitude of themes for young artists to identify with.
I have long worshipped Sylvia Plath. This is sometimes an unusual confession to make, as Plath is usually associated with girls and young women and not 17-year-old boys. But as a queer young boy growing up in the oppressive and uneventful suburbs, it was my first reading of Plath’s The Bell Jar that began the love affair. At age 15, I buried myself deep inside the bell jar world of Esther Greenwood, whose summer breakdown felt eerily similar to my growing alienation with the world as a closeted gay boy who was prescribed copies of The Catcher in the Rye and Lord of the Flies and bullied for his effeminacy.
One summer at age 18, I pored over her diaries, borrowing them over the weeks from my local library, much to the suspicion of my mother who didn’t understand why I would want to read someone else’s diaries so much, let alone an American poet who killed herself. (She had similar reservations about my borrowing of Anne Sexton’s letters.) I eventually made similar attempts to Plath at regular diary-writing, using a meticulously cursive writing style (a la Plath) to record my own unrequited high school romances, my furtive online habits looking at everything from Gore Vidal to bisexual porn, and, finally, the transcendental pleasure I found in reading another young writer’s diary, feeding off her alienation and self-loathing as it was filtered through beautiful, lucid prose.
After working my way through most of Plath’s oeuvre—including her letters and children’s books—that summer I began to read about her honors thesis, “The Magic Mirror.” Plath completed her college dissertation in 1955, a project that looked at the motif of the double in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s two works, The Double (1846) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). As I read more about the thesis, which is mostly skimmed over in journals, it was hard not to see some psychological or reparative motivation behind it.
It was only the year before that Plath attempted suicide and was hospitalized for depression, her nervous breakdown seeing her installed at MacLean Hospital, taking time away from her undergraduate studies. Given that her academic project was interested in looking at doubles—more implicitly, the divided self—in Dostoevsky’s writing, I found it hard not to see the parallels: Plath unpacking double selves in literature, having only experienced a similar struggle in her own life the year before.
I put aside the thought of Plath’s thesis for a little while, only coming back to it in my third year at college, majoring in English literature. (Strangely enough, Plath was never on the syllabi for courses I took.) I was motivated because I was toying with the idea of doing my own dissertation, encouraged to spend the year like Plath did married to an esoteric subject that had little currency beyond the sandstone pillars of my university library.
I began to remember the elusive manuscript, one that had already few listings on the Internet and seemed to only exist by a limited number of copies kept in a scattering of Plath archives. But after some more thorough searches I discovered an obscure British printing house that had a few copies listed online. As I navigated their antiquated website—all Times New Roman and black text boxes—I discovered they had copies of the thesis for sale.
With what small funds I had at the time as an undergraduate student, I decided to “invest” in an unbound, printed manuscript printed in the late 1980s. Since I bought my copy of the Plath thesis, the publisher has folded and is no longer listed online, apparently selling off what they had left of the obscure material they published in the 1980s and 1990s. And for some inexplicable reason, the publisher was given the rights to publish Plath’s honors thesis. Whether or not the college gave the publisher, Ted Hughes, or Aurelia Plath (Plath’s mother), permission is unclear.
And so when the slim thread-bound manuscript arrived, I did what I had done years before and locked myself in my room, devouring the rare Plath work. The thesis—surprisingly small compared to the 15,000-word dissertations of today—is a slim, terse work meticulously and logically unpacking the double motifs in Dostoevsky’s books, the writing similar to the curt, sometimes ironic voice of The Bell Jar.
The thesis is explained by its subhed—“a study of the double”—and has rather more metaphorical value to readers of Plath, given her life story. It seems ironic that Plath used this phrase given that so much of her life since her suicide has been characterized by this double: before and after her breakdown; before and after her marriage to Hughes; before and after her suicide. Sylvia Plath is a mythic figure that exists in-between, in purgatory. She has an exactness in time. Even her biographies are marked by strategy: Andrew Wilson’s Mad Girl’s Love Song: Sylvia Plath and Life Before Ted (2013); Elizabeth Winder’s Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 (2013); and Diane Middlebrook’s Her Husband: Ted Hughes & Sylvia Plath, A Marriage (2004).
I found the thesis that summer an enticing read, enriched by the fact that I was holding one of the rarer artifacts of her deep body of work.
As a devotee of Sylvia Plath the writer, the intellectual, and the myth, I explored the thesis to see if she tried to reconcile her psychosocial breakdown by channelling it through her own academic work. If it was true, I too wanted to emulate this, using my own thesis on the pleasures of gay icons—women I sought comfort and solace in during my own breakdown—as a strategy to understand my own psychology.
Plath was as much an icon to me as gay diva icons Bette Davis and Elizabeth Taylor—but there was a deeper level to my appreciation of Plath: it was how she was oppressed by the heterosexual world and the societal expectations placed on her as a woman that I most identified with. But even more so, it was the fact she tried to destabilize these expectations, voicing her frustration and alienation and self-knowledge through blistering poetry and a confessional novel. And so I read the thesis and learned about how Dostoevsky, a titan of Russian letters, was an access-point for Plath to meditate on her psychological torment, creating a vehicle of sorts for her to channel questions about the divided self. Ultimately, the thesis seemed more interested in whether literature could provide an outlet for her investigations into her own psychology than whether Dostoevsky was writing about the divided self with mirrors or shadows or a character as foil.
Plath’s preoccupation with the double was to such an extent that she sought out other books around the subject, including James Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890). Plath was annoyed, however, that famed Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank’s paper “The Double as Immortal Self” had yet to be translated into English and attempted to navigate it despite her poor German skills. Although she wasn’t able to access the original, she still cites some Rank in her preface, foregrounding that despite referencing him, her thesis is not a psychological exegesis and more of a literary undertaking. Still, this obsession with doubles during her honors year attracted attention from those around her, including her mother, a boyfriend, and benefactress Olive Higgins Prouty, who asked in a letter, “Don’t Dostoevsky’s doubles depress you a little bit?”
In the introduction, Plath is quick to add that her analysis is not a “clinical analysis of the Double” in Dostoevsky, as it would be “precarious” to take this approach. Instead it is apparent that Plath wants to unfurl the metaphorical value these symbols—shadows, brothers, foils, mirrors, portraits—have in demonstrating the divided personae in Dostoevsky’s writing.
In his biography Mad Girl’s Love Song, Andrew Wilson suggests that the idea of The Bell Jar novel was already percolating in Plath’s mind as she worked on “The Magic Mirror.” She asked some of her love interests at the time, including a man named Gordon Lameyer, about writing “an adolescent story about doubles” (334). Wilson goes on to write that Sylvia was deeply interested in mediating her life through these “mirror images.” Already, Plath’s study of doubles began laying the groundwork for The Bell Jar.
For me, Plath’s dissertation acted as a template for my own thesis. I too was interested in understanding some of my own psychological history and cultural leaning, analyzing them through literary and theoretical frameworks to better understand my depression, and myself. For my thesis I took up the subject of Elizabeth Taylor, exploring her dual screen- and celebrity-image and my worship of them both as a gay man. I wanted to study Taylor to try and understand why so many gay men worship Hollywood movie and music stars, idolizing these divas to assuage the angst and pain of being a queer outsider in a homophobic world.
Plath evidently used her honors thesis to try and understand her own darker psychological self. By choosing a subject like the “double” in the gloomy and existential writing of Dostoevsky, Plath was motivated to unpack her psychological torment by proxy.
By analyzing something at a distance—in much the same way I chose Elizabeth Taylor, a star I did not entirely worship, but appreciated more from a distance—we both used a proxy cultural text to understand our respective disillusionment. Plath’s thesis, which came the year after her repatriation to Smith following her breakdown, is undercut by a need to psychologically understand the doubles in these novels—her desire for an English language version of Otto Rank’s work; her obsession with writing about mirrors in these novels, which later appeared in her own novel; her terse if slightly wry language suggesting she will avoid psychoanalysis in her dissertation—demonstrate a need to understand and reconcile her own problematic psychological history.
I kept Plath’s “Magic Mirror” close by as I wrote my own thesis. This knowledge that someone else—a literary titan who had seen me through my own breakdown—had attempted a similar project, using a proxy form to interrogate a personal psychological past, helped me.
I don’t know if others would identify with “The Magic Mirror” in the same way I did. But as a young queer boy who spent a lonesome adolescent summer reading The Bell Jar over and over—and then those queer sultry nights watching Bette Davis movies—I felt more assured, more confident, and more capable in unpacking diva worship in my own life after reading Plath’s efforts to understand her complex identity.
These days, my copy of the “The Magic Mirror”—along with The Bell Jar—is safely packed away, buried alongside high school ephemera and exercise books. Along with my own thesis, these relics are emblematic of my time living in a hot stifling jar, long before the lid was lifted.